Past tensions with educators’ union loom over St. Paul School Board race

By Sommer Wagen

A year ago, the St. Paul Federation of Educators narrowly avoided a strike after a deal on a new contract was reached with St. Paul Public Schools. With a new bargaining session coming up next year, the school board’s relationship with the union is key to many candidates’ campaigns.

Seven candidates are currently vying for four open seats on the board. Four of those seven are endorsed by SPFE.

One of those candidates, Erica Valliant, said endorsement means that the union trusts that she will do what her campaign promises.

“It means that I’m going to have open communication, that I’m going to be considerate of the union’s concerns and make an informed decision rather than ignoring their voice and their concerns,” she said.

Valliant, one of five newcomers to the race, is also sporting endorsements by the Council 5 AFSCME and the St. Paul DFL.

A recurring last resort

SPFE has a notable history with strikes — one was narrowly avoided in 2018 and educators did walk out in March 2020, only to be interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The goal is always going to be to try and prevent a strike because that is the last resort,” Valliant said. “I would hope the initial space of conflict is where we can surface everything and come to a solution.”

Recurring issues in each bargaining session have included class size caps and language, mental health support for students and educator pay. Each of these issues is highlighted across the candidates’ campaign platforms.

“I think that having a decent pay is strongly connected to how people feel valued in their work,” Valliant said.

Carlo Franco, another candidate who is SPFE endorsed, added that the hardest-to-fill positions in the St. Paul schools are the lowest paid.

“TAs in the district that are represented by Teamsters 320 are maybe making $15–$17 an hour starting wages but are only getting 30 hours a week,” Franco explained. “That is not a thriving wage.”

In light of teacher shortages across the state, St. Paul Public Schools recently tapped its budget to hand out $10,000 hiring bonuses to 70 special-education teachers and $4,000 bonuses for special-education assistants, intervention specialists and mental health practitioners, according to the Star Tribune. Still, as of Aug. 20, SPPS had 70 vacant positions to fill, the story said.

Labor background is a badge of honor

Franco comes from a labor background; he is a former SPFE executive board member and was a strike captain during the March 2020 work stoppage. His campaign is endorsed by Council 5 AFSCME, Teamsters 32 and the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation.

“I’m very proud to be labor endorsed,” Franco said. “[Endorsement] represents to me that it’s a partnership of how we continue to have this conversation and remain in relationship.”

Abdi S. Omer, another newcomer to the race, is not SPFE endorsed but brings his own union participation to his campaign. “I am a city employee and part of a union, and I understand and support unions in general,” Omer said in an email statement. He added that he would like to work closely with SPFE if elected.

Striving for transparency and mutual understanding

With labor contracts between SPFE licensed and unlicensed personnel having expired in June and a new bargaining window expected early next year, candidates seeking endorsement were asked to anticipate what disagreements with SPFE would look like.

“My approach to disagreements is to relentlessly pursue mutual understanding,” incumbent Chauntyll Allen said in her SPFE candidate questionnaire response. “I believe that we all want the same outcome: a vital and equitable school district where students and educators thrive.”

Allen has been a school board member since 2020 and is seeking her second term.

“I would have to question myself internally if there was a big disagreement between myself and SPFE,” Yusef Carrillo, another newcomer to the race, said in his SPFE candidate questionnaire response. Carrillo, who served an interim term on the board in 2021, said he wants to encourage transparency by publicly answering questions from teachers and SPFE leaders.

“I want to bring a spirit of learning and curiosity into every contentious issue, which will lead to collective decision-making,” he said.

Bringing in community

With transparency, curiosity and mutual understanding at the forefront of their campaigns, this year’s school board candidates seek to further integrate the community into board and district operations.

“Across the city of St. Paul, there’s a big opportunity to get community folks in governing spaces that have the ability and the knowledge base and the drive to lead,” Franco said.

According to Franco, community involvement in governing spaces involves transparency around the use of the SPPS budget, especially COVID-19 relief funds, and making space at the table for the least represented neighborhoods, including where he was raised on the West Side.

“Our public schools shape our community and society,” Allen said in her SPFE questionnaire response.

Allen was previously known for her activism with Black Lives Matter before her time on the school board. Over the course of her first term, she helped shape the pipeline that leads SPPS students into educational careers.

Valliant said that effective leadership comes from getting input from all stakeholders involved, from union leaders to district employees to community members.

As the second-largest school district in the state, SPPS has captured attention for its recent disagreements with organized educators. It remains to be seen what a marked union presence in this year’s school board candidate slate will result in.

Incumbent candidate Zuki Ellis passed on SPFE endorsement this election. Ellis joined the board in 2016 and, according to the board website, she believes the pressing concerns for the upcoming year are “special education, parental understanding of the process, partnerships that exist in the best interests of our students, and the legal and moral responsibilities to support our students.”

Neither Ellis nor candidate Gita Rijal Zeitler responded to requests for comment.

Election Day for the St. Paul School Board and city council elections is Tuesday, November 7. A polling place finder can be found on the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website. 

(Editor’s note: The Bugle requested photos from each candidate and published the photos they sent us. If candidates did not respond, we used photos from their campaign websites if available.)

Sommer Wagen majors in journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and is an intern for the Bugle.

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